Trauma occurs when something intensely terrifying and/or painful happens and the person has no ability to control the situation. Combat soldiers who are bombed or pinned down, those who experience a sexual or phsical assault, being involved in a car crash, or seeing something horrific can often lead to trauma.
When this happens, your brain gets injured. The difference between physical injuries and mental ones is that the physical ones are obvious, and since we can see them we can treat them. The mental ones are not so obvious and we tend to think the person will “just get over them”, but that doesn’t necessarily happen. If you break a leg and don’t get it set and cast, you will limp and experience pain forever. the same can happen with a trauma.
When you experience a trauma, the most common injury is that a part of your brain called the amygdala stops functioning properly. The amygdala is the “smoke alarm” – it warns you of danger. For most people it sits pretty inactive until they sense something very dangerous then it fires up and our body gets that horrible feeling of tension and on alert. For those who have experienced a trauma, it is almost always firing….they go through life with the physical sensation of danger everywhere. Their life is one of constant stress.
When this happens their lives begin to shut down. They find leaving the house difficult, going certain places that resemble the site of the trauma impossible and situations overwhelming. It may be difficult for the person or others to understand the connection between the sense of danger and the trauma. Why do combat vets get anxious in supermarket carparks? Why can a woman who has been raped not get on a bus? The connections become clear when the trauma is explored.
Sadly a lot of trauma sufferers find their own therapy to get rid of that constant feeling of danger. They drink, take drugs, engage in risky behaviours and lash out at those around them. Those who have experienced a trauma use these to give themselves relief from the constant misery and fear that the trauma has left them with. If someone broke a leg and didn’t get it fixed and walked with constant pain and a limp, we would empathise with them using drugs or alcohol to escape that constant pain. We struggle to do that with trauma because the injury is not visible, but it is just as real. One of the problems of the debate on drugs and alcohol abuse is that we see those as a “problem” and a “crime”. In a great many cases it is a “symptom” of trauma and if we could see it that way we would have a much better approach for dealing with it.
Working with trauma sufferers is the work I most enjoy, because it is so wonderful to see people begin to live a life of freedom, ambition and hope that trauma stole from them. It is slow, because it has to be. Trauma sufferers have to feel completely safe to talk about their trauma and that might not happen until they have been meeting with a therapist for many months.
If you have had a trauma, I would urge you to see a therapist who is experienced in trauma to get it resolved. It is probably affecting you and those around you more than you realise. If it has come about through a sexual assault it is covered by ACC. Find out more at tautokomai.co.nz